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'Star Wars Trilogy'

It's funny how an artist's fundamental nature will color everything he or she does, large or small. For filmmaker George Lucas, on the large end you can see evidence of his obsessive quest for control in his struggles to make a movie a studio couldn't futz with. And, with the release of The Empire Strikes Back -- the second film of the original Star Wars trilogy -- achieve it in a way that gave him an autonomy unknown in the history of the medium.

As for the small end of things, a fan need go no further than the long-awaited commentaries accompanying the even-more-long-awaited DVD release of the first three films in the Star Wars franchise. There are actually four DVDs in the Star Wars Trilogy box set -- full versions of each of the first three films, plus a bonus disk bursting with background info, featurettes and an hour-long documentary that take fans back through the filming of all three movies. And for true geeks, there's a sneak preview of the highly anticipated third "prequel" film, Revenge of the Sith, due in theaters in 2005.

Commentary tracks are a new "back porch" for movie fans -- a place where filmmakers can put their feet up, sit back and walk fans through the filming of the movie. And who wouldn't want to be on that back porch to hear George Lucas talk about Star Wars?

However, Lucas opts for an edited approach, where his comments and those of cast and crew members are recorded and then stitched together. Unfortunately, this approach dilutes the spontaneity of whatever the participants have to say, and gives the whole experience a slightly disembodied feel. Ah, genius... This decision will continue to keep any candid insights into these works -- the most popular film series of all time -- under wraps.

Besides Lucas' control fixation, his idiosyncrasies are on display here as well. After Lucas himself, the most frequent voice on the commentaries is that of sound engineer Ben Burtt. The trilogy's creative use of sound is justifiably celebrated, but Burtt is continually added to the voiceover soundtrack to share endless tales of geekily collecting this or that sound. These stories quickly pass irritant status and become a wildly annoying presence over the course of the three discs, and one can only be amazed at the insular world Lucas lives in.

Fans and the merely curious will have to settle for what they get here, which, in truth, is a lot. The making-of documentary is a fun watch, but no documentary funded by the subject it profiles will be revelatory. Still, it's hard to gainsay the engrossing tale told here: Lucas leverages the success of his breakout film American Graffiti and then the first Star Wars to fund the sequel film The Empire Strikes Back himself -- and pocket personally the hundreds of millions in profits from that and the next four films in the series.

There are many amusing passages in the behind-the-scenes documentary -- especially when Lucas settles some old scores. For example, viewers learn that after Fox studio chief and Lucas supporter Alan Ladd Jr. is forced out of the company, Lucas took his next action series, the Raiders of the Lost Ark films, to Paramount -- a stiff penalty for Fox, indeed.

The films themselves look and sound great. You won't see the first Star Wars in its original incarnation here -- Lucas jiggered with the films on their re-release in the late 1990s, and those are the versions we get, complete with added scenes and better special effects.

It's sad he didn't include the original Star Wars theatrical release -- for history's sake, if nothing else. But Lucas is uncompromising, again. He contends that Star Wars is his vision, not ours. Want to argue with him?

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Bill Wyman
As the assistant managing editor overseeing NPR News’ arts coverage, Bill Wyman and his staff offer listeners thoughtful and in-depth reporting on film, the fine arts, the performing arts, media, Internet culture, and digital technology. Wyman joined NPR in 2003.